BROOKSVILLE — The second Florida Blueberry Festival got a boost on Tuesday when the Hernando County Commission agreed to provide up to $14,000 to help pay for the event's traffic control.
Although commissioners failed to grant a request to allow organizers to sell alcohol on county property, the offer of financial assistance was a turnaround from two weeks ago when the commission flatly refused to help the festival.
While the contribution is just a fraction of the estimated $250,000 needed to produce the two-day event slated to take place May 4 and 5 in downtown Brooksville, it's certainly welcome, said Brooksville Vision Foundation chairman Cliff Manuel, who appeared before the commission as chairman of the blueberry festival transportation committee.
"We're pleased that the county sees the blueberry festival as an investment in the community," Manuel said. "This is an event that we hope will bring benefits well into the future."
The county money will help cover the estimated $30,000 cost of closing the city's two main thoroughfares and rerouting traffic to accommodate the street festival. The money will come from county taxes on hotel stays and most of it will go to the state Department of Transportation to pay for lighted signs and detour barriers.
Manuel found his pitch tough to sell at first. Still adhering to the hard stance he took against a similar request earlier this month by festival chairwoman Michael Heard, Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he saw no need to spend county money on an event that "lacked accountability".
Nicholson's views were echoed by a majority of the commission as well as members of the public, who questioned why an event that spent about $564,000 in outside contributions in its inaugural year cannot pay its own way.
Former County Commissioner June Ester said festival organizers have failed to show whether visitors to last year's event actually stayed around long enough to spend money beyond what they put into the coffers of the festival before returning home.
"People who live in Hernando County don't stay in hotels," she said. "I'm not sure what kind of businesses will ever benefit from it."
Heard did not appear before the commission Tuesday, but disagreed with Ester's assessment, saying figures provided by the county's tourism development council proved otherwise.
"We drew 40,000 people last year," said Heard, who previously persuaded Brooksville elected officials to come up with $25,000 in assistance.
"I challenge anyone to show me a single event that has ever done that in Hernando County. The entire community reaped the benefits."
Calling the commission's decision to help back the event a "win-win for everybody," Heard said she believes that once the blueberry festival is able to prove itself, even the naysayers will change their minds.
"I think we're on the right track," Heard said. "We learned a lot from the mistakes we made last year."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.